Exercise Two: Psalm and Kyrielle

Both of these forms come from the Judeo-Christian religious traditions. Both are direct prayers or pleas to God. The psalm originate at about 1010 BC, when King David would have been composing while he was on the run from King Saul. The book of Psalms in the Bible consist of 150 psalms and span many stories from the Old Testament.

The kyrielle comes about much later in Medieval France, as part of the liturgy of the ancient church service.

The Exercise - Psalm
Some of the most famous psalms are worth knowing for allusion sake, but also because they give you an idea of what can be accomplished in a psalm. Notice the extended metaphor of the shepherd in Psalm 23 and all of the images of protection and covering listed in Psalm 91. In Psalm 139, the psalmist treats his relationship with God in a more personal way. Regardless of your religious beliefs, you can attempt to compose a psalm - address it to someone or something outside of yourself or even to a part of yourself (like you soul or your spirit). There are many different types of psalms in the Bible, but a few of the common characteristics of a psalm include:
  1. Give God a character: some psalms are about the "god of mercy" while others are about the "god of war" or "the god of revenge" (this might be attributed to the fact that the psalms are a borrowed poetry from pagan cultures which believed in many gods - it pretty interesting stuff. If you get a chance, read Robert Alter's The Book of Psalms for more history behind this form of poetry).
  2. Most of the psalms use a parallel meaning between the parts of the stanza (i.e. "when I consider your glory, the works your fingers have set in place" [I think of] "the stars which you have set in place"). This is also called "call and response." Set up an idea and then enumerate an aspect of that idea, illustrate the idea by example.
  3. Use repetition for emphasis. Most of the psalms use some sort of repetition, usually of a phrase (i.e. "O, LORD, my god" or "YOU [followed by any number of actions]." 
  4. Try to make irreverent psalms, too. Take a look at Christopher Smart's "Jubilate Agno" for a great example of how you can take this language into a completely different direction.
The poetry and imagery of the Bible can account for all sorts of forms of poetry, including Dante creating the terza rima to reflect the Trinity for The Divine Comedy, Spenser's development of the Spenserian stanza for The Faerie Queen, and even something like ekphrasis, which is poetry about art, reflects the same type of language we see in the psalm. However, for practice purposes, the kyrielle is a form that developed in France with obvious echoes of the psalms. The refrains recall the repetition of the psalm while the rhyme scheme seems to take the place of the parallel meanings in the stanzas.

The Exercise - Kyrielle
Once you have attempted a psalm or two, take it a bit further by trying to compose within the form. The kyrielle is a form that relies on a specific stanza construction (quatrains, or four line stanzas) and a refrain (a line that is repeated in each line). It also relies on syllabics - eight syllables per line. Here's an example 9though the rhyme scheme is up to you):



*The capital B stands for a rhyme that is also a refrain
**For an extra challenge, you may try to use the iambic tetrameter as the line construction rather than the syllable count: - / - / - / - /

Examples from The Psalms and from Thomas Campion
Example psalm:
O God, You are my God; I shall seek you earnestly;
My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You,
In a dry and weary land where there is no water
Example kyrielle:
With broken heart and contrite sigh,
A trembling sinner, Lord, I cry:
Thy pard’ning grace is rich and free:
O God, be merciful to me.
I smite upon my troubled breast,
With deep and conscious guilt oppress,
Christ and His cross my only plea:
O God, be merciful to me.
Far off I stand with tearful eyes,
Nor dare uplift them to the skies;
But Thou dost all my anguish see:
O God, be merciful to me.
Nor alms, nor deeds that I have done,
Can for a single sin atone;
To Calvary alone I flee:
O God, be merciful to me.
And when, redeemed from sin and hell,
With all the ransomed throng I dwell,
My raptured song shall ever be,
God has been merciful to me.
"The Lenten Hymn," Thomas Campion